What Qualifies as a Service Animal?

Years ago, the only service animal most of us knew about was a seeing-eye dog, and no one could deny the legitimacy of that essential service. Then things evolved. Service animals began to help people with both physical and emotional issues, and it became much harder to define which animals should receive the “service animal” title. A friend of mine recently showed me a photo of a miniature pony taking up a first-class seat on an airplane to provide emotional support to one of the other passengers. For me, that stretches the bounds of what’s appropriate and reasonable.

In the housing realm, if you own, manage, or sell residential rental properties, you’ve probably dealt with a request for a service animal to live there. Until this year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) hadn’t updated the Fair Housing Act verbiage that dealt with assessing a service animal as a reasonable accommodation since 2013. The definition of “assistance animal” was vague, which was frustrating for property managers and tenants alike. Now, there is more clarity. The update outlines what information a housing provider can request and consider when deciding whether to grant a tenant “reasonable accommodation” regarding service animals.

By way of background, the Fair Housing Act requires housing providers to offer reasonable accommodation so that people with disabilities can benefit from the assistance of animals in spite of any pet restrictions the providers might have. Reasonable accommodations include exceptions to rental agreement to afford people with disabilities “an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling and public and common use areas.”

The Fair Housing Act defines assistance animals broadly as animals that work, provide assistance, or perform tasks that benefit persons with disabilities or provide emotional support to alleviate a symptom or effect of a disability. This can include trained and untrained animals. With such a broad definition, it’s easy to see how an unscrupulous renter might try to exploit this law to allow their pet Fluffy the iguana—who provides none of the services above—to be classified as an assistance animal.

The new guidance requires a licensed medical professional with personal knowledge about the individual and the disability to certify the need for accommodation. People will no longer be able to order a certificate online without ever having been diagnosed or treated for their alleged disability. The guidance also states that if the animal is not a “common household pet,” then the requestor must demonstrate a disability-related therapeutic need for that specific type of animal. Finally, the guidelines confirm that the assistance animal must help address a disability that “substantially limits at least one major life activity or major bodily function.”

To make sure they adhere to the stricter criteria, does this mean housing providers should immediately review all leases for any accommodations they’ve allowed? No, but I would be sure to incorporate the guidance into new leases.

Really, this guidance helps rule-followers on all sides. Housing providers now have clear criteria to judge which animals qualify as service animals, and people who legitimately need reasonable accommodations should have no problem getting support from a medical provider to substantiate that need. The losers are the cheaters who pretended to need service animals when really, they just wanted their pets to sneak in under the “reasonable accommodation” rule.

Be aware that a property owner may charge a tenant for damage caused by an assistance animal or deduct damages from the security deposit. And if an animal poses a threat to the health and safety of others or to the property, housing providers can deny the request.

If you have questions about property management or real estate, please contact me at rselzer@selzerrealty.com or call (707) 462-4000. If you have an idea for a future column, share it with me and if I use it, I’ll send you a $25 gift certificate to Schat’s Bakery.

Dick Selzer is a real estate broker who has been in the business for more than 45 years.

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